Tuesday, 3 September 2013

TV: Looking Back On... Crown Court (1972 - 1984)

In this occasional series, I look at TV shows of the past which I think are ripe for a fresh look. Whilst I'm not generally a big fan of old classics being dusted down and remade (sorry, re-imagined as they like to say these days), I do think there are a few shows which could come back to our screens and (with the minimum of tweaking) fit in nicely with the TV schedules of today. Crown Court is such a programme...

All programme images are copyright of ITV Studios, and are used purely for illustrative purposes.

So, what was it all about?
Originally screened on ITV and produced by Granada Television between 1972 and 1984, this gem of a programme used to sneak out at lunchtime. The premise was simple enough: Three episodes throughout the week would present a case in the fictional Fulchester Crown Court, shot in a full size mock up of a courtroom. The legal teams, defendants, witnesses et al would all be portrayed by actors, and the usual pattern was that the case for the prosecution would take up the first two episodes whilst the case for the defence and the verdict of the jury would take up the third. It was the verdict which added the real spice to proceedings. The outcome was unknown until it was actually shot, as the jury was made up of members of the public who, after a 30 minute recess would come to their own conclusion based on what they had just seen. Not only did this mean that the actors had to genuinely present their case with conviction (pardon the pun) to win the jurors over, it also meant that the actors' reactions to the verdict were genuine and spontaneous. The programmes were all shot “as live” wherever possible, and any retakes were kept to an absolute minimum. Cameras were kept generally static to avoid interfering with the action.

The simple formula made for compulsive viewing. Part of the enjoyment came from looking at the jury, and guessing what their verdict would be. If the defendant looked like they were from a working class background, but the jury looked like Granada had shipped them in from the posh end of Knutsford, it was a pretty safe bet the poor sod was going down, innocent or not...

Quite harmless entertainment, then?

Not exactly. The show was certainly not afraid of controversy or experimenting.

1976's story Ju Ju Landlord featured a case of harassment and black magic, with a mixed race jury which was bold stuff for the time. 1984's series finale had the highly incendiary title of Paki Basher, and focused on the jury deciding whether an Asian defendant, charged with attacking a Caucasian accuser, was in fact defending his own uncle from a racist attack.

At the other end of the spectrum, 1973's Christmas special Murder Most Foul presented an almost lighthearted case, complete with festive styled titles. Later on, absurdist playwright NF Simpson penned 1977's An Upward Fall, in which a home for the elderly has been built on a cliff top with the lavatory facilities located 3,000 feet below. The simple programme premise allowed for amazing scope.

Was anyone famous in it?

It certainly gave an early break to many famous faces: Richard Wilson, Maureen Lipmann and Keith Barron would regularly appear as barristers. Defendants/Witnesses included Brian Cox, Michael Elphick, Zoe Wanamaker, Nigel Havers, Ben Kingsley, Brenda Fricker, Robert Powell... I could go on all day.  Just for example...

In this clip from 1984, we see an early appearance from Peter Capaldi. The 12th Doctor Who appears to have borrowed the 11th Doctor's hairdo... The great Nigel Stock is the judge.

Why should it come back? How would it work?

It's a no brainer to me. You have the cliff hanger element of a soap, and yet a new cast and story every week whilst keeping a consistent format and setting. Logistically it could be economical to shoot, only requiring one set (each original case was traditionally shot in one day). The rotating cast and writers would keep things fresh and allow an ideal opportunity to give new talent a chance. It could work well in a primetime slot these days, provide plenty of programming for daytime repeats or ITV3, and help break the over-reliance on multiple episodes of soaps - everyone's a winner!

Has anyone tried anything similar since then?

BBC2's The Verdict in 2007 tried having a jury made up of celebrities judging in a case of a footballer accused of rape. The victim and defendants were all actors, but the barristers and judge were all legal professionals. Comparisons to Crown Court were inevitable, and it was further bogged down by current TV thinking that everything has to have celebrity panellists/contestants to get the viewers interested. It lasted four episodes, and never returned.

What would make a revamp work, then?

Well, if it ain't broke don't fix it. If any ITV commissioning editors are reading this (not likely, but still), just a few points:

a) Don't fill the show with everyone who has been killed off in a soap opera over the past three years.

b) Resist the temptation to replace the jury with telephone voting.

c) Do not, under any circumstances, make a crossover version with The Jeremy Kyle Show.

Where can I see it?

At the time of writing, seven volumes of Crown Court have been released on DVD by Network - more details here.

There also seems to be a few episodes floating around YouTube. Here's the original opening and closing titles, with the theme music: "Distant Hills", performed by The Simon Park Orchestra and featured on the b-side of their 1973 UK number 1 hit, "Eye Level (Theme from Van Der Valk)".

Label scan from 45cat.com

For those over a certain age, this will evoke memories of nipping home from school for lunch and having to miss the verdict as it came on too late, or being off school with flu/measles/chicken pox (delete as applicable).

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